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Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in
London: Penguin, 2002.
£7.99, 231 pages, ISBN 0-14-028692-6.
SUNY Oswego, Oswego NY
Having been brought up at Wighill, the site of the first murder in
the blood feud of the title, Fletcher has a more than average interest
the history of the
area. The period he covers from 1016 to 1170 in Northumbria is one of change
and growth. Fletcher wishes to explore the historical framework of that period
and its place in English history. As he points out the Norman Conquest in 1066
was the second conquest of the kingdom of England in the eleventh century (1).
And he also rightly informs us that few outside the academic specialty of medieval
English history know much about the earlier invasions of the Danes. The Normans
conquered in 1066, the Danes led by King Sweyn, in 1016.
Fletcher tells us; In the course of the year 1016 there were five battles
between the English and Danes, a long Danish blockade of London, and much laying
of waste of territory (1). Sweyns son Canute went against one Uhtred,
an earl under the English king Ethelred II. Uhtred realizing Canutes
superior power agreed to submit to him and the place was fixed at Wiheal.
The place itself no longer exists, but Fletcher surmises from the itinerary
of Canute that
Wighill might well have been the place. Since there is no concrete evidence
for much of what happened in this period, historians must piece together records,
maps and chronicles of the time and then choose the scenario or conclusion
seems to best suit the evidence. Thus much of what Fletcher writes is qualified
with conditionals: As befitted a ritual exchange of peace, and given the
guarantee of safe-conduct, weapons and body-armour would have been left with
the horses outside, in the care of grooms and servants (3). Of course
he has no direct proof of this, but the custom which dates back at least to
and is documented in Beowulf is traditional enough to allow him to claim
it in his narrative.
Facts (and he and I use them advisedly when it comes to medieval chronicles)
are presented with caution. He comments about the foreign nature of the eleventh
a large part this is owing to the extreme paucity of the sources
that have come down to us from that distant epoch. Everything that we know
Uhtred of Northumbria could be written on a post-card. His death was reported
in a single
sentence by one strictly contemporary witness, the anonymous annalist who
complied, possibly at York, what is known as manuscript D of the
of public events which historians call the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (4)
the Chronicle is a major source, Fletcher also relies heavily
on an anonymous document written, about 60 years after the death of
Uhtred, by a
monk at Durham. This document is mostly interested in landed endowments
and the descent of estates in the area, but these provide the modern
information on how various properties were transmitted between families,
which in turn gives valuable information on the political fortunes
of those families.
And it is the feuding of the major families of Northumbria that interests
Fletcher. The story in brief runs thus:
Uhtreds son, by name
Ealdred, avenged his fathers murder
by slaying the killer, Thurbrand. Thurbrands son Carl, in turn
avenged his fathers
death by killing Ealdred. In due course Ealdreds grandson Watheof
contrived to avenge that murder by cornering all Carls sons
and grandsons when they were feasting together. (5)
went on in the US up into the last century. And a type of
tribal feuding seems to exist yet in parts of the world. We have
only to look
at the former
Yugoslavia and places in Africa to see the destruction caused by
such ongoing warring. To understand such matters, medievalists
have been applying the
methods of anthropology to their studies for at least a century.
According to Fletcher
anthropology must be used sparingly in medieval studies since the
society of eleventh-century England was developed and
complex in ways that many tribal peoples are not. Additionally anthropology
tells us that feud is
not simply revenge, though the instinct of revenge underlies it (8).
The essence of feud is that it encompasses groups and is governed
social conventions (8). The groups are usually kin, but feuds
expand outward to take in retainers and neighbors. In a feud, the
hostility is most often generated
by a public affront to honor; verbal or physical abuse, abduction
or rape, theft, arson, or murder all can start a feud. The state
of hostility between the groups
is recognized by outsiders as a regular form of the relationship (9).
And as such is subject to various rules: the acceptable degree of
violence, a notion of parity in exchange, collective liability, and
an apparatus for
between the hostiles (9).
As we see in Beowulf, feuding was an accepted and expected
way of life in the Middle Ages. In that work there are three central
Grendel against man, man against man, and man against dragon. Round
those central episodes circle a galaxy of related instances of
one reported as
a negative example of the way a king and his people should interact.
So in tracing the history of the Uhtred feud, Fletcher is interested
the feud but
in the social and political outcome of each of the central murders.
To establish the effects of the feuding, he first lays out the
of England in the years leading up to the time of Canute. By about
had emerged out of the long years after the Romans departed. These
kingdoms were Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. They
and similar institutions. They were also subject to Viking incursions,
hence our story.
The history of those incursions and the infighting they caused
among the royal houses of Northumbria comprise the rest of the
rise and fall of various earls, all surrounding Canute and Ethelred.
The book is full
of genealogical tables and maps which the lay reader needs to keep
track of the intermarrying of four or five major families. In the
learn that of the four areas of England it was the least anglicized and
hence the most dangerous for the kings of England to travel through. According
to Fletcher, St. Cuthbert was the dominant presence in Northumbria, followed
by a handful of great aristocratic families, among them the house of Bamburgh,
family of Uhtred. Given the warring between the families and the Danish incursions,
one does not wonder that the English kings were less than eager to go to Northumbria.
Uhtred was murdered at Wiheal. Others in the family, Ealdred,
Eadwulf, and Oswulf were later murdered in the same feud. Thurbrand
Uhtred was later killed by Ealdred. The feud finally ended or was
lost sight of
when Thurbrands grandsons were killed at Settrington by Waltheof, a grandson
of Ealdred in the winter of 1073-4. Here the sources simply fail Fletcher and
he engages in some informed speculation. The motive, revenge for a grandfather
seems slim. Waltheof sends his young men, he does not go himself, a gesture
Fletcher assures us was one of contempt. The massacre at feast is not without
precedence (189). And yet no real motive can be determined because the written
sources simply are not there. Beyond this point in history there is no record
of the feud.
Instead, Fletcher finishes his book with an account of Waltheofs death
because he rebelled against William the Conqueror. He was beheaded, and immediately
a cult had been born (195). Waltheof who dies with the words of the
Lords prayer on his lips becomes a local cult figure. His corpse remains
incorrupt, a sure sign, and miracles of healing begin almost immediately (194).
To complete his story, Fletcher takes us to Wighill, the place
where he begins it, and follows the Haget family, tenants of the
of Mowbray (196). The Hagets come into possession of Wighill around
1140. Fletcher traces their fortunes into the twelfth century,
by which time
England is united
under Henry II, Richard I and John. The Hagets were literate, educated
provincial gentry who helped the kings to rule Northumbria. By
the time John was forced
to sign the Magna Carta, Northumbria was successfully integrated
into England and the great feuding families were no longer there.
They had destroyed
themselves in the blood feud.
This is a densely written book that rewards the patient reader.
Fletcher wants to make this period accessible to the non-specialist.
he connects the feud and its results to later developments in English
history, i.e., the Magna Carta. To the extent that he succeeds,
Fletcher can take
all the credit. He is a good writer, with a sense of humor. Commenting
on the tendency
of warriors to chew over old slights, he says Even the most mustard-keen
sportsmen and warriors cannot spend all their time talking
about dogs and horses and weapons. (The force of boredom in human
historians have underestimated.) (140). He handles clearly the complicated
sets of relationships involved in the feud and those families around it. What
is making the feud seem so important from this distance. And so one could wish
a wide audience for this book, but one fears that it will remain the province
of specialists and amateur scholars.
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